Sunday, March 29, 2015

Deregulate lotteries to fund welfare

First published in The Korea Herald.

There has been a heated debate in recent months about the need to raise taxes in Korea to generate revenue for the various government welfare programs to support the needy. While President Park Geun-hye has ruled out the possibility of raising taxes and is instead eyeing the “shadow economy” to get the much-needed funds, there is one other source that has been completely overlooked ― lotteries.

Lotteries are of particular interest to public finance economists since they represent an important source of government revenue in many countries. As a significant contributor to the government kitty, they have been widely examined by economists focusing primarily on their revenue potential and desirability as a method of taxation ― in many countries they exceed in magnitude tax collections on goods such as alcohol or tobacco.

Moreover, lotteries run for or by governments are used to support public programs such as infrastructure development, public safety, public health and education. The principal argument used to support lotteries has focused on their value as a source of “harmless” revenue, contributed by players voluntarily spending their money.

Critics have, of course, argued that lotteries for the most part have a regressive impact ― in the sense that the burden falls disproportionately on people with lower incomes, who typically spend a greater portion of their income on lotteries than those with higher incomes.

That said, while the lottery market in Korea has been growing, the pace of growth has been very negligible. Moreover, the lottery options available to customers are also limited.

Korea’s lottery business model currently has a three-tier structure: the Korea Lottery Commission, primary lottery operators and secondary lottery operators.

The KLC, a government agency responsible for formulating and implementing lottery-related policies, has exclusive authority to issue, sell and manage lottery products, but it entrusts private lottery companies with the operations.

The available lottery schemes are: online lottery game Lotto 6/45, four printed lottery games ― one draw game, three instant games ― and seven Internet lottery games ― four draw games, three instant games. Then there is a sports lottery.

Unlike in other countries, the National Gambling Control Commission, a regulator under the Prime Minister’s Office, sets a limit on sales each year for the industry as part of its efforts “to control, supervise and regulate the gambling industry independently, with prevention policies as the first priority.”

The Finance Ministry asks the NGCC every year to eliminate the sales ceiling, arguing that the lottery is less addictive than other gambling industries and its share of GDP is half of the OECD average and one-third of the rate in other Asian countries. The NGCC has consistently refused the request, afraid of annoying the antigambling lobby.

Since lottery tickets went on sale for the first time in 1947, printed lottery tickets have been dominant in Korea. But from 2003, the Korean lottery market has become disproportionately lopsided toward the online lottery.

Industry experts have noted that Koreans want to try out new lottery products, but the limited options and lack of enthusiasm for other products that offer lesser payouts made them switch back to Lotto.

Lotto continues to offer the highest prize money among all available lotteries, but it is just a fraction of that in other developed markets. While jackpots often run into hundreds of millions of dollars in Europe and the U.S., the average single jackpot prize in Korea works out to around $2 million.

The growth of this industry is artificially restricted as the government has been under constant pressure to “stabilize the market and curb reckless gambling.” On the contrary, by artificially constraining the legal lottery market, the government helps sustain the growth of illegal gambling.

The latest statistics of the Finance Ministry show that Korea’s lottery industry grew for the ninth year in a row in 2014, with total sales surpassing 19.87 trillion won.

According to official data, gambling-related sales ― casinos, lotteries, horse, cycling and boat races and traditional bullfights ― grew 1 percent, by 199.2 billion won from the year before. For 2015, government officials expect the size of the industry will top 20 trillion won, mainly from a rise in demand for lotteries and casinos.

Of this, sales of various lottery tickets and sports betting exceeded 3.28 trillion won each, up 1.4 percent and 6.5 percent, from the year before.

The NGCC’s claim that the domestic lottery market is overheating is far from true. It has only been showing modest growth.

If we contrast the performance of Korean lottery sales with average performances in the Asia-Pacific, the real picture emerges. Estimates by the World Lottery Association show that Asia-Pacific lotteries have been witnessing average growth of over 10 percent.

The fastest-growing market is China. According to government figures, China’s lottery market continued to grow in 2014, with total lottery sales of $61.2 billion, representing a growth of 23.6 percent.

Even in European countries smaller than Korea, with historically similar income levels, the lottery market is almost four times larger.

Clearly, the market growth in South Korea is insignificant given its potential.

It may be true that in the past the industry’s growth potential was limited because of the social stigma attached to lotteries in a Confucian society, but that restraint has slowly faded over the years.

If the lottery market is to expand, the legal and regulatory framework needs drastic changes. The operators should be allowed a wide portfolio of games, which they should be able to offer across all channels ― retail, Internet and mobile.

More importantly, if the government is serious about mopping up revenues without higher taxes, it should consider the lottery option for funding welfare schemes.

Currently, 35 percent of lottery proceeds are appropriated to 10 legally mandated projects in accordance with Article 56 of the Lottery and Lottery Fund Act; the remaining money is used to help low-income families with housing, veterans’ welfare, cultural heritage and art promotion, and other public works.

Instead of imposing penalties and curbing the growth of the market, the NGCC should do away with any limits and let the markets decide. It will go a long way in boosting the lottery market and help the government efforts to boost welfare without tax hikes.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Dynamics of Korea-China economic relations

First published in The Korea Herald.

The much-awaited Korea-China Free Trade Agreement was initialed in late February, taking a step closer to implementing what is seen as Korea’s most significant trade deal.

The initialing came about three months after the two countries concluded FTA negotiations that began in May 2012, and is expected to eclipse its deals with the U.S. and the EU, as China is already its largest trading partner.

China, the world’s largest destination for Korean goods, accounted for more than one-quarter ― $145.28 billion ― of Korea’s overall exports of $572.66 billion in 2014. The next biggest national-level markets for Korean exporters are the United States at 11 percent and Japan at 6 percent.

According to news reports, the agreement, currently written in English, will be translated into the two countries’ native languages before it is officially signed.

“The two governments have agreed to work toward the official signing of the FTA within the first half of 2015,” the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy said in a press release.

The pact requires approval from both the respective legislatures for implementation, and will come into force immediately after it is passed.

Under the deal, Korea will completely eliminate its tariffs on 79 percent of all products, or 9,690 items, imported from China within 10 years of its implementation. China will reciprocate the move on 71 percent of the products, or 5,846 items, from Korea during the same period.

Within 20 years, Korea will eliminate its tariffs on 92 percent of all goods, with China eliminating its own import duties on 91 percent of products from Korea.

“The government will do its utmost to have the agreement ratified by the National Assembly without any disruption so that our companies can start benefiting from the Korea-China FTA at an early date,” the Trade Ministry said.

Soon after initialing the deal, Deputy Trade Minister Woo Tae-hee pointed out that some new and positive elements had been added to the agreement since the conclusion of negotiations on Nov. 10.

According to the government, 310 products from the inter-Korean joint industrial complex in Gaeseong will immediately benefit from a reduction or elimination of Chinese import tariffs.

The two countries have also added a new standstill clause in their bilateral agreement that will prevent either side from raising or adopting new customs duties on any products or services.

Through additional dialogue, Korea has gained better market access and established a better business environment in China for financial and communications service providers, the Trade Ministry said.

The two countries have also agreed to provide preferential treatment to each other’s financial firms and to set up a new committee to jointly deal with any business problems for the firms. They also guarantee nondiscriminatory access to communications networks by companies entering each other’s markets.

In addition, the Korean government moved to quieten fears of damage to its farmers, as 596 out of 2,240 agricultural and fisheries products currently imported from China will be permanently excluded from market liberalization, while 16 others, including rice, were excluded from negotiations from the beginning.

Following its implementation, the FTA is expected to help boost the countries’ annual bilateral trade to over $300 billion, a 21.54 percent hike from $235.36 billion in 2014.

Also, according to the government, Korea’s trade territory, represented by the combined gross domestic product of countries with which it has a free trade pact, will grow to 73 percent of global GDP from the current 61 percent.

There is no doubt that this a very significant deal and could have a very great impact on the economies of both countries.

However, as many analysts have pointed out, China’s rise puts Korea in a strategic dilemma between the U.S. and China. Traditionally, Korea and the U.S. have been close allies. Their alliance has been a major factor in Korea’s political and economic success. Due to China’s consistent rise, market growth and size, it so happens that Korea is now increasingly dependent on its neighbor’s economy. Consequently, it has to dually manage its security, which is grounded in the alliance with the U.S., and its economic well-being, which depends on its economic partnership with China.

It is therefore important to check how the economic relations panned out prior to the implementation of the FTA.

Economic relations

China established trade relations with Korea as early as the mid-1970s. However, due to the lack of formal diplomatic relations, most of the trade was conducted indirectly via Hong Kong, thus limiting trade volume.

Experts have suggested that their economic cooperation developed through three stages. In the early 1990s, many Korean politicians were eager to construct a dialogue with key political leaders of China. Business executives of Korean conglomerates then joined the politicians in opening channels for dialogue with China. Finally, in August 1992, a diplomatic relationship was established between both sides which opened a new chapter for bilateral economic relations.

The first stage started with diplomatic normalization and the beginning of the first China boom ― both trade and investment increased sharply from almost nothing. This trend continued until the second half of 1997, when the country was hit by the Asian financial crisis. Following this, the second stage brought about a slowdown bilateral economic relations, including the pulling out or canceling of many investment projects in China because of difficulties with Korean companies’ cash flow.

This did not last too long, however, since China became a member of the World Trade Organization in late 2001, which once again saw foreign companies flocking to the country, and Korea was no exception. Since then, China once again has been the biggest economic partner of Korea, including the development of a new destination of informal migration. As a consequence, it did not take long for the relationship to solidify, and in 2004, China became the exporting and investing country of first importance to Korea.

In the meantime, the trade structure has also changed considerably. In the early 1990s, trade from China to Korea was often in primary goods, as well as labor-intensive products, while China imported technology-intensive and capital-intensive manufactured products from Korea. In recent years, trade between the two countries is mostly in technology- and capital-intensive goods. Foreign-invested enterprises, especially those with investment from Korea, played a critical role in the structural changes of the bilateral trade.

As noted by Cheong Young-rok, professor at the Graduate School of International Studies at Seoul National University, “There are two different schools of thought in Korean academia: One school argues that China is a mere clone or extension of other Asian countries that were once glorified as newly industrializing economies or high-performing Asian economies. In this context, China could be a really tough competitor for Korean companies, especially for Korea’s exporting industries, and could undermine the export basis of Korean growth.

“The other school of thought tries to prove that China’s growth is intrinsic in the sense that it has resulted from a combination of improved resource allocation and a new model for a sizable economy that has been carried out by China’s own design. As a result, Koreans hope that China will become an additional country for quick economic interaction.”

The flip side of this increasingly tight economic relationship is, first, that Korea is now more dependent on the fate of the Chinese economy, and second that the risk of friction is higher than in the past.

Any fluctuation in the fortunes of the Chinese economy has an immediate impact on the Korean economy. If there is a slowdown in China, Korea’s trade is hurt badly, which has a ripple effect on other sectors.

Trade figures

If we look at the bilateral trade figures between both the countries in 2014, a number of important facts emerge.

According to latest available trade figures, Korea’s total exports to China in 2014 slipped by 0.4 percent on-year. The slowdown started in May 2014 when there was zero growth, and since then the monthly exports have registered consecutive negative growth. This was the first decline in five years.

This is significant, given that Korea relies heavily on its neighbor.

If we look at the export components, the picture becomes clearer. Korea’s exports to China are mostly comprised of intermediate and capital goods.

At the disaggregate level, in 2013, Korean exports to China were dominated by machinery and transport equipment (48 percent), followed by manufactured goods (24 percent), chemicals and related products (19.5 percent), and minerals, fuels and lubricants (6 percent). Crude materials, food and live animals, beverages and tobacco, commodities transactions, and animal and vegetable oils make up for the remainder of exports.

Now, if we look at the growth rate of these categories, something interesting emerges.

Export of machinery and transport equipment grew 4.6 percent on-year (from $70.49 billion to $73.72 billion) in 2014. This does seem positive, but if we look closer, the pace of growth has actually fallen drastically. In 2013, growth was at 21.8 percent. Since this group accounts for almost half of total exports, it is worrisome.

Next, the export of manufactured goods to China shows a negative growth of 5.4 percent, down to $22.82 billion. Chemicals and related products were down 4.2 percent at $27.14 billion; minerals, fuels and lubricants down by 12.5 percent; crude materials, food and live animals, commodities transactions, animal and vegetable oils all declined, by 6.6 percent, 1.6 percent, 39.6 percent and 43.3 percent, respectively.

Some explanations can be provided for this decline in South Korean exports to China.

Many news reports and studies have noted that Chinese manufacturers are now increasingly producing the parts and equipment that once were imported from Korea. However, many Korean companies still continue to regard China as a production base for exports to other countries. This is a fallacy because Chinese companies have fast developed their consumer goods market and are increasingly becoming self-sufficient in intermediary goods.

If, as has been the norm, Korea continues to export to China mostly products that are actually being exported to a third country, they will be in trouble if China’s exports falter.

Also hurting Korean exports is China’s growing self-sufficiency, with greater investment and technological abilities in industries where Korean companies have historically supplied exports.

As noted in many news reports, officials at the Trade Ministry agree and attribute this decline to the fact that China is improving its own supply capacity and therefore has reduced dependence on Korean intermediary goods. Chinese firms have started producing more of the intermediary goods on their own.

Local Chinese companies appear to be giving tough competition to Korean firms.

This is a view also taken by the state-funded think tank Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, which noted recently that China has been ramping up its own production capacity for intermediary goods and has less demand of its own for finished products because of moderating economic growth.

Hopefully, the FTA will set things right for Korea on the trade front. For this, the government needs to undertake a more detailed analysis to understand the cause for this decline and how Korean companies can overcome the situation.

Investment situation

Another important form of interaction between the two economies is foreign direct investment. FDI into China tends to be dominated by Asian investors, and Korea plays an increasing role in this respect.

In 2014, Korean companies’ investment in China ― financial sectors such as banking, securities, insurance were excluded ― hit an eight-year high last year and entered the $60 billion zone. By contrast, Japan’s investment in China dramatically decreased during the same period.

Recently, the Korea International Trade Association announced that the real investment of Korean companies in China in 2014 was $3.97 billion, which was 29.7 percent higher than that of the previous year. This is the highest in eight years and is a similar number to that of 2006 ($3.99 billion). Moreover, it is a significant increase when considering the recent annual investment in China has been only around $2 billion to $3 billion. Accordingly, last year, Korea accounted for 3.3 percent, of the total foreign investment in China, which was higher than 2.6 percent in the previous year. In addition, at the end of last year, Korean companies’ cumulative investment in China was $59.82 billion.

While Korean companies’ investment in China rapidly grew, Japanese companies greatly reduced their investment there. Therefore, the annual investment gap between the two countries in China has narrowed to $300 million, KITA has noted.

Japanese companies’ investment in China last year was only $4.33 billion, which was 38.8 percent lower than the previous year. When taking into consideration that Japan’s investment in China was around $7 billion for three years since 2011, which was double that of Korea, last year’s investment was an exceptional figure.

According to the trade agency, Korea’s highest investment in China in eight years is understood as Korean companies gaining interest in entering Chinese domestic markets now that the settlement of the Korea-China FTA is helping to mature the economic cooperation between the two countries. It is expected that the scope of investment will expand, not only because of the reduction of tariff on items owing to the FTA but also because of the opening of service sectors.

Clearly, while the FTA does provide investment opportunities for Korean firms, the bilateral trade between both sides is vulnerable to external pressures and also geopolitical developments.

Some economists have criticized the Korean government for promoting FTAs in such a way as to make the number of FTAs and not their contents the central object. They have pointed out that the conclusion of an FTA should not be its own object since an FTA is only a means to strengthen competitiveness and enhance efficiency, and since Korea’s basic FTA policies focus on external expansion, the effects of trade liberalization are less than what are expected. It remains to be seen how the effects of the Korea-China FTA pan out.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Restrictive Internet platform in Korea

First published in The Korea Herald.

The Korean government has finally announced its plans to start removing the troublesome ActiveX software from public websites later this month in order to create a more user-friendly Internet environment.

For long, this tech-savvy country has been stuck in a time warp with its slavish dependence on Internet Explorer.

ActiveX controls were one of the many troublesome regulations that President Park Geun-hye vowed to remove in her signature deregulation initiative, and it is good to notice that the government is moving fast.

It is a software framework that defines reusable software components in programming language and has become an integral part of the country’s Internet landscape.

Because it is a nonstandard software, it sometimes has trouble interacting with different browsers and is not really appropriate for mobile platforms. In particular, the system requires users to submit authentication certificates issued by local authorities, making it impossible for people to buy products or make financial transactions online without using Internet Explorer with the ActiveX plugin. In addition, websites of government bodies also use this technology for Internet security.

The Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs announced on March 3 that it would draw up a set of guidelines to remove ActiveX controls from public websites and implement it later this month.

The government has been seeking to help develop alternative technologies to replace the ActiveX controls, the home ministry said, adding that private sector website operators would also join the move to get rid of them in cooperation with other ministries.

Accordingly, the Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning is currently in charge of similar efforts vis-a-vis the private sector. The ministry is also planning to complete its private-sector ActiveX removal efforts by the end of this month.

However, one should not get our hopes too high. Back in 2009, the government and the Korea Communications Commission announced these very same objectives and even set up a task force. They grandly stated that they would make it mandatory for online shopping malls and financial institutions to provide subscribers with an alternative to ActiveX.

It was loudly cheered at that time, but then slowly forgotten, and the policy gathered dust. The same issue is now being revisited and it is hoped the authorities walk the talk.

To provide a little context to this situation, the Korean government was among the first to encourage shopping and banking online, but many people were concerned about Internet safety. The goal was to make Internet shopping very secure, so the government created its own system to authenticate the identities of online buyers. To make purchases, shoppers had to supply their names and registration numbers and apply for government-issued “digital certificates,” which they could present to sellers as proof of ID. This required the additional plug-in ActiveX ― which worked in tandem only with Internet Explorer, the browser that reigned supreme at that time.

Times changed and technology advanced, but the authorities continued with this piece of regulation. As a result, in Korea, when using Web browsers such as Chrome Firefox or Safari, online shopping often begins with a warning that the ActiveX plugin is required.

Those who use Apple computers or have installed Linux variants ― which cannot run Internet Explorer ― are virtually banned from doing any online financial transactions.

They have to either partition their computers and install Windows on one side, or rely on their office desktops, PC rooms and helpful neighbors.

It is really vexing, and I should know, having been a victim of this digital discrimination myself. I replaced my desktop with iMac way back in 2008. While I refuse to have anything to do with Internet Explorer, and also replaced Windows with Ubuntu on my laptop, I had to reluctantly install Windows on a partition of my Korean wife’s iMac, since she has to do most of the shopping and bank work online.

The funny thing is that Microsoft now supports ActiveX in Internet Explorer only as a legacy technology and actively discourages the use of the protocol. In fact, in a security advisory put out by the company a few years ago, the company actively discouraged the use of ActiveX.

It said: “Unfortunately, ActiveX controls are like any other software program ― they can be misused. They can stop your computer from functioning correctly, collect your browsing habits and personal information without your knowledge, or can give you content, like pop-up ads that you don’t want. Also, ‘good’ ActiveX controls might contain unintended code that allows ‘bad’ websites to use them for malicious purposes … . Here’s a good rule to follow: If an ActiveX control is not essential to your computer activity, avoid installing it.”

However, the Korean authorities appear to have ignored the warnings. So it is about time they are straightening things out. This will not only ease the hassles for customers but also grow the e-commerce business.

Last year, the Federation of Korean Industries carried out a survey on this issue and found that Koreans overwhelmingly approve the scrapping of the ActiveX framework, citing it as a hindrance.

According to a survey by the lobbying group for the country’s large conglomerates on 700 people nationwide, 78.6 percent of respondents said they wanted ActiveX software to be discontinued and replaced by a more up-to-date support system that is not so restrictive.

Going into details, the federation said 79.1 percent complained the framework made it a hassle to purchase products online, with 71.7 percent saying it affected bank transactions.

“This is the reason why despite Korea’s advanced information technology infrastructure, the proportion of its online shopping sector compared to its GDP, is much smaller than the United States, Japan and China,” the federation claimed.

For that matter, retail e-commerce sales in the country are expected to reach $36.76 billion in 2015, according to the latest eMarketer estimates of e-commerce and total retail spending around the world. Those figures give South Korea the third-largest retail e-commerce market in the Asia-Pacific, after China and Japan.

There is no doubt that if ActiveX is scrapped, it will breathe new life into the domestic online market place that could attract more buyers at home and abroad. It will go a long way in boosting the e-commerce market in the country, making it a growth engine.